THERE was a time, not so very long ago, when European football really did provide Scottish clubs with trips into the unknown.
John Collins is a veteran of such assignments, such as Celtic’s odyssey to Georgia back in 1995 to face Dinamo Batumi, when managers and players knew next to nothing about some of their opponents prior to kick-off.
But, as Celtic prepare to break new ground in Europe again against Azerbaijani side Qarabag in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, Collins insists they will be almost as well briefed as they would for a domestic fixture.
Relative obscurity is no longer a barrier in the new age of football analysis and the Celtic assistant manager says there will be no excuses for the Scottish champions to be taken by surprise in tomorrow’s first leg at Parkhead or the long trip to Baku for the return next week.
“With modern video analysis tools you can quickly find out everything about your opponents no matter who they are,” said Collins.
“You can get get all of their games live and see every goal they have scored and conceded. We can do the research. We’ll be briefing the players so they’ll know what they will be up against.
They are no mugs. We have to play well to get throughJohn Collins
“When I was a player, we never had this level of analysis so it was a bit of a step into the unknown at times.
“I’ve been to places like Georgia, Belarus, Estonia and Latvia with clubs and with Scotland. Georgia was a six-hour journey. You had to overcome these things.
“But nowadays you have all the video footage so you know what to expect. Sometimes it’s the heat that is the problem at this time of year but it shouldn’t be too bad in Baku. We’re looking at about 25 degrees, so it won’t be stifling.
“It’s a nice stadium and pitch, and the hotel is good, so there will be a nice bed at night. We’ll look at the food situation and maybe take our own chef. It will be a comfortable plane. This club is very professional and there is nothing that won’t be taken care of.”
Celtic must take care of business in Glasgow first of all with Collins ideally seeking a clean sheet and a lead to take to Azerbaijan.
But he has added to the warnings that it will be a serious test of Celtic’s Champions League credentials against a financially well-resourced Qarabag side who reached the group stage of the Europa League last season.
“They are a good football team,” added Collins. “They have good movement, they like to knock the ball about and have pace in the wide areas.
“They’ve got a couple of Brazilians in the side – midfielder Richard Almeida and striker Reynaldo – who are very handy indeed.
“We know Qarabag did very well in the Europa League last year. They drew with Inter Milan and beat Dnipro. They had a tough group but played well in all the matches.
“I wouldn’t want to compare them to any other team. What I can say is they are very well organised tactically. Physically they are in good shape and they have skilful, technical players.
“They are champions of their league so are a good all-round team. But so are we. They are no mugs. We will have to play well to get through. It should be a good game. It certainly won’t be easy.
“Celtic fans are not daft. Not many people will have heard of them but if you do a bit of research you see how well they did last year.
“There’s no household names in their team, that’s for sure, but they have a few Brazilians and internationals who are very good football players.
“If you can keep a clean sheet and score a few goals, that would be the dream scenario if you could write the script.
“We are at home and of course, we want to entertain and score goals. Equally important is keeping that clean sheet. It doesn’t bother me being at home first. I am quite happy having the first leg at Celtic Park.
“If we had the choice we would prefer a shorter journey for the away leg. But that’s the reality and we need to get on with it. There’s no excuses. We will leave a day early and get settled in to get used to the place.”
These opening few weeks of the season have become the most crucial on Celtic’s schedule in recent years as they strive to participate in the lucrative group phase of Europe’s elite club competition.
“It’s back to front now,” said Collins. “The big games used to come at the end of the season when you had momentum and were flying.
“But that’s just the way it is now and the way it is going to be in the Champions League. You just need to prepare as best you can. It’s a short break and you are back playing games.
“We know what’s in front of us. I am sure there will be a little bit of nerves when you go up that tunnel and on to the pitch on Wednesday night. They will quickly disappear when the match kicks off. I am sure it will be exciting. We all know how important the game is.”
Collins and Celtic manager Ronny Deila will today cast an anxious eye over Charlie Mulgrew after he missed training yesterday with the knee injury he picked up in Saturday’s friendly win over Rennes.
The Scotland international was preferred to Emilio Izaguirre at left-back in the second leg of the second qualifying round tie against Stjarnan in Iceland last week and Collins admits his absence would be a major blow.
“We will see how he is,” added Collins. “Charlie has been playing very well so he would be a big loss if he doesn’t make it. He’s such a versatile player for us.”